Squeezed middle left out of new plan for childcare
The Government is facing a backlash among backbenchers against a subsidised childcare scheme for under-threes that will not benefit squeezed middle-income earners for years.
The means-tested scheme could cover up to 100pc of parents' costs but only lower-income families are set to qualify when it begins next September.
It could take years of budgets before the upper income limit to qualify for the annual subsidy is high enough to benefit the bulk of middle earners.
The State would pay part of a family's childcare costs directly to creches and childminders under the proposal tabled by Children's Minister Katherine Zappone.
Parents could find out if they are eligible for subsidies by logging onto a website and entering their PPS numbers and choosing a childcare provider. The State would pay part of the bill to the childcare provider, and parents would pay the rest.
But Fianna Fáil children's spokesperson Anne Rabbitte said she did not agree with the minister "abandoning middle Ireland" in this Budget and was seeking a meeting with her to discuss the proposal.
"We can't turn our backs on these people," she said.
Fine Gael Dublin Bay South TD Kate O'Connell said workers earning up to €70,000 should be eligible for the subsidy.
Ms O'Connell said it was "outrageous" that there is no tax relief in place for struggling working parents and plans to make a case in a document to Finance Minister Michael Noonan to extend the scheme to middle income earners. She is a member of the Dáil Budgetary Oversight Committee.
"I think it is acknowledged that the squeezed middle is really squeezed and needs help," she said.
"They've been badly hit. The average industrial wage is around €37,500 but even that salary bracket has moved up to some extent in terms of who is in the middle.
"You have to make it possible for people to go out and work and childcare is a major barrier to that, especially for women. There's no doubt this Budget and the subsequent budgets must deliver on childcare."
Ms O'Connell said she has two children in a full-time creche and one that needs after school care, and many families, although they may not be the worst-off, need help, particularly when grandparents are not available to help.
Fine Gael Wexford TD Michael D'Arcy said he was concerned about hard-pressed couples being excluded if the threshold is too low.
"There needs to be a clear analysis of whatever scheme comes in to ensure that families who need support are not excluded," he said.
Mr D'Arcy believes a first measure would be to increase the hours available under the Early Childhood Care scheme from three to four.
Government sources insisted a €47,000 figure used during a government briefing on the scheme was just an example and accepted that it would not help a large number of couples.
A source stressed the exact thresholds will depend on "how much money Fine Gael is willing to give Zappone".
Fine Gael Dublin Rathdown TD Josepha Madigan said lower-middle-income workers and low-paid workers had to be the "priority" in this Budget.
"I will be pushing for middle-income workers to be prioritised," she said. "Childcare is a major issue for people and a huge cost."
Fine Gael Fingal TD Alan Farrell said that, as a father, he had first-hand experience of "exorbitant" childcare fees and it was not feasible for many people to go back to work after having a child.